Today we hear from the Editor of our House of Lords 1604-29 Section, Dr Andrew Thrush about a curious incident in the House of Commons in 1604 involving a Jackdaw. How superstitious was the House of Commons?
Three months ago an owl flew into the Parliament building in Dodoma, Tanzania, where it perched near the ceiling and observed the proceedings, to the alarm of MPs who tried without success to evict it. In east African society owls are widely considered to be omens of bad luck, and even to be the harbingers of death. Parliament was then in the process of debating whether to amend the Political Parties Act, a proposal which many feared, if adopted, would weaken Tanzania’s multi-party system, and thus its democracy. Sensing the agitation in the House, the Speaker, Mr Job Ndugai, tried to reassure his fellow MPs that an owl seen in daylight was no cause for concern. However, many remained unconvinced. The apparently inauspicious appearance of the owl went on to draw nationwide attention from newspapers and social media alike.
It is tempting to suppose, in our scientific age, that superstition has never played a part in the life of the Westminster Parliament. However, the recent appearance of the owl in the Parliament chamber at Dodoma echoes an episode that occurred in the English House of Commons in May 1604. MPs were then in the middle of debating a bill regarding costs in a particular form of legal action. The bill had already received two readings and survived the committee stage. Its sponsors might therefore have been reasonably confident that it would pass at third reading. However, during the bill’s final debate a young jackdaw flew into the chamber through one of the windows, to the consternation of many of those present, who declared the bird’s appearance to be a bad omen for the bill. Jackdaws had long been associated with ill fortune. As long ago as the twelfth-century William of Malmesbury had related the story of an old witch who, on hearing a familiar jackdaw chatter more loudly than usual, grew pale and announced that some dreadful calamity was near at hand. Sure enough, before she had finished speaking, a messenger brought news of the death of her son and his family. How many MPs put their faith in this superstition in 1604 is not entirely clear, but the bill went on to be defeated by 118 votes to 99. Moreover, the clerk of the Commons thought the incident sufficiently important to record it in the Commons Journal.
Such superstitious behaviour is now quite banished from parliamentary life at Westminster, of course. Or is it? In 2013 MPs, ever desirous of good luck, had to be ordered to desist from rubbing the feet of the statues in the Members’ Lobby before entering the Commons chamber. Apparently, the statues of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Clement Attlee and David Lloyd George were all in danger of suffering serious damage if this long-standing tradition was allowed to continue. By comparison with this practice of touching statues, the reaction of the Tanzanian MPs to the recent owl in their midst seems almost reasonable.